LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Movie fans flocked to Hollywood on Sunday to watch the stars parade up the red carpet for the Oscars, the world's top film awards.
With rags-to-riches romance "Slumdog Millionaire" expected to win the honor for best movie, suspense at the gala ceremony has shifted to whether host Hugh Jackman and producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark ("Dreamgirls") can recapture a dwindling television audience with a showcase of top stars and films.
Expected at Hollywood's Kodak Theater where the 81st Academy Awards are being held are Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and scores of other stars.
"I'm here to see Kate Winslet. I hope she wins," said Jessica Alfrey from Huntington Beach, California, who was among the fans who began gathering along the red carpet at early morning. "She's a great actress who has something about her that's very real."
Winslet is nominated for best actress in "The Reader."
Nearby a group of 10 people included Babe Churchill of Chino, California and Sandi Stratton of Escondido, who said they had been coming to the Oscars for 40 years.
They most wanted to see Brad Pitt, who is nominated for best actor in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and veteran Jerry Lewis who is picking up an honorary award.
Many around the world will be watching on television to see what Jackman will do. He who won a Tony award on Broadway for his work in "The Boy From Oz" as well as TV's Emmy award for hosting the stage world's Tony awards. He was brought in to the Oscars to help spruce up the show.
He, Condon and Mark have been mostly quiet about their plans, but The Los Angeles Times said the pair hired Australian director Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") to stage one number and comic writer/director Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up") for laughs.
Jackman will perform a musical introduction and a longer routine in the middle of the more than three-hour show.
Still, the biggest draw for Oscars has always been having popular movies at the center of the show and suspense over which films, actors and actresses will win awards.
"Slumdog," an often dark but ultimately hopeful tale about a poor Indian boy who competes for love and money on a TV game show, has generated about $150 million in global ticket sales. It has earned awards from critics and industry groups whose members include actors, directors, producers and writers.
The movie's key competition comes from "Milk," starring Penn as gay activist Harvey Milk, as well as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Pitt as a man who ages backward.
The other two nominees are "Frost/Nixon," which recounts the historic interviews of disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon by British TV host David Frost, and the drama "The Reader."
The competition for best-actor appears to be a two-way battle between Penn and Mickey Rourke as a faded athlete in "The Wrestler." On Saturday, Rourke won the independent film world's Spirit Award for best actor, but that honor comes from different voters than the roughly 6,000 academy members who cast Oscar ballots.
Winslet is tipped for best actress playing a German Nazi-era prison guard in "The Reader" over Meryl Streep as a nun who suspects sex abuse in a Catholic school in "Doubt.
Heath Ledger, who died in 2008 of an accidental prescription drug overdose, is favored for best supporting actor as the villain Joker in Batman movie "The Dark Knight."
Pundits say the award for supporting actress is wide open with Penelope Cruz in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" up for the Oscar against Marisa Tomei in "The Wrestler," Taraji P. Henson for "Benjamin Button" and Viola Davis and Amy Adams, both in "Doubt."
Fashionistas will be watching the gowns on the red carpet, and while experts say the recession has stars dressing down, they are quick to add the designs won't all be dull.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman